Encountering Religious Pluralism | Book Review


Christianity was borne into a religiously plural cultural environment. It emerged from the womb of Judaism (that itself had multiple forms) into the world of polytheism, imperial cults, and mystery religions. This required Christians to make sense of their faith vis-à-vis these others faiths. This obligation still rests on Christians, for globalization has put us in constant contact with religious (and nonreligious) “others,” whose beliefs, behaviors, and forms of belonging often differ significantly from our own.

Over the last few decades, three basic theologies of religion have emerged among Christians. Exclusivism is roughly the position that Jesus Christ is ultimate in terms of both revelation and salvation. One must have faith in him to be saved. Outside of him, no one is saved. Inclusivism agrees on Christ’s ultimacy, but it also affirms that truth can be found in other religions and that some who have not heard the gospel through no fault of their own may experience salvation because of their positive response to what natural revelation they had. On this view, no one is saved apart from Christ, but some may be saved apart from explicit faith in Christ.

Pluralism is roughly the idea that all religions are revelatory and salvific to basically the same degree. Just as all roads lead to Rome, so all religions lead to Heaven. Today, pluralism is the ethos of globalized societies as well as an ideology that relativizes the exclusive (and inclusive) claims of any particular religion. Among self-identified Christian theologians, the most comprehensive presentation of pluralism is John Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion of Religion, whose subtitle, “human responses to the transcendent,” epitomizes his argument.

Encountering Religious Pluralism by Harold Netland is a critique of religious pluralism generally, and Hick’s version specifically, as well as an explanation of why pluralism has become so widespread, not merely in the academy but also in popular culture. Part One offers the explanation, while Part Two outlines the critique. The book is well worth reading. If not the definitive refutation of Hick’s pluralism, it certainly constitutes one of the most thorough rebuttals.

Netland summarizes Hick this way:

At the heart of his model are three claims: (1) that there is an ultimate reality to which the different religions are legitimate responses, (2) that the various religions are historically and culturally conditioned interpretations of this reality, and (3) that soteriological transformation is occurring roughly to the same extent within the major religions. Therefore, the various religions are to be affirmed as equally legitimate religious alternatives, with preferences among them largely being functions of individual characteristics and social and cultural factors (221).

Netland later summarizes his critique of Hick this way:

Given that his proposal is a second-order theory intended to account for the first-order data from the religions, the adequacy of his theory depends largely upon two factors: (1) the accuracy with which his theory reflects, and the ease with which it can accommodate, the data from various religious traditions, and (2) the internal consistency of the theory itself. I will argue that Hick’s model is fatally flawed on both accounts (232).

The central problem with Hick’s model is that it is, ironically, insufficiently pluralistic. It is reductionist and reinterpretive. As Netland states the matter, “although it purports to be an explanatory model that accounts for the data from the various religious traditions, it does so by reinterpreting the actual beliefs and practices of the religions in ways unacceptable to orthodox practitioners of the religions themselves” (232).

Sumner Twiss has defended Hick against the charge of reductionism by distinguishing “descriptive” and “explanatory” reductionism. He argues that Hick has not engaged in the former kind of reductionism—i.e., Hick does not incorrectly describe others’ religious beliefs and practices. According to Twiss, Hick does engage in explanatory reductionism, but this is not particularly controversial, since all explanations are reductive to one degree or another.

Netland identifies the flaw in this defense, however, by comparing pluralism with “religion-specific explanations” (RSEs, 233). All religions attempt to explain the existence of other religions, and then critique them. Netland summarizes the problem with Hick’s explanatory reductionism this way:

… the adequacy of an RSE as a general explanation of other religions will depend upon the justification one has for accepting the religious worldview from which the RSE emerges. This must be established on other, independent grounds apart from the RSE itself. But we do not have an analogous case with Hick’s model. One does not first establish the justification for his proposal and then from within the theory provide an explanation for other religions—Hick’s proposal is that explanation. As such, the adequacy of his model is in large measure a function of its internal consistency as a theory and its capacity to account for the first-order data of the major religions without distorting them in the process (234–235).

Seen in this light, Hick’s model only works because it radically reinterprets basic tenets of other religions in order to fit the model, rather than changing the model to fit the basic tenets of other religions. So, for example, Netland argues that “each tradition ascribes ultimacy to its own particular conception of the religious ultimate,” but Hick’s model reduces each claim to ultimacy to “merely a penultimate manifestation of what is truly ultimate—the Real” (235). For example, the Christian claim that the Holy Trinity is ultimate must be reduced to a human response to the divine on an equal footing with other religious claims to ultimacy, even though practitioners of the religion due not agree with Hick’s reinterpretation of their ultimacy claim.

The other basic shortcoming of Hick’s model of religious pluralism is its internal consistency. Two issues arise here, specifically. First, Hick correctly notes that some religions have a personal ultimate (e.g., Christianity) and others an impersonal ultimate (e.g., certain strains of Hinduism and Buddhism). According to Hick, both what he calls “personae” and “impersonae” characterize the Real. This creates a problem of consistency, according to Netland, “due to the undeniable differences among such images of the religious ultimate” (238–239). Netland asks: “Can one seriously maintain that the ontological implications of the Judeo-Christian understanding of the divine as Yahweh, the ontologically independent personal Creator and righteous Judge are compatible with the monistic implications of the Hindu notion of nirguna Brahman or with the ontologically ultimate image of sunyata (emptiness) in Zen?” (239). Not without setting logic to the side, it seems.

No wonder, then, that over the course of his writings, Hick placed “increasingly greater emphasis on the theme of ineffability, so that the Real is said to be utterly beyond the range of human conceptual and linguistic categories,” writes Netland (243). There are at least two problems with Hick’s version of ineffability: First, it is self-referentially absurd. “If this were the case, Netland writes, “then at the very least ‘the property of being totally beyond conceptual and linguistic categories would apply to the Real, thereby refuting the original claim” (243).

Second, and worse, the final basic claim of Hick’s model, about “soteriological transformation,” runs afoul of ineffability too: “If indeed the Real in itself is beyond moral categories, so that it is neither good nor evil, how can Hick use a moralcriterion in this manner?”—that is, in evaluating why Muhammad is a genuine prophet but, say, Jim Jones is not (245). In other words, Hick has to take sides, which means that pluralism doesn’t adequately and consistently explain diverse religious phenomenon.

After reading Netland, it seems to me that we can know “the Real” to a significant enough degree or we can’t. If we can, then we must find the religion that most closely aligns with it. But this involves judgment, choosing both for and against religious claims. Hick’s model claims to avoid this problem, but in the end, it’s just one model among many religion specific explanations, thus failing to oblige any religious believer to choose it rather than his or her own faith.

Encountering Religious Pluralism is a much broader book than I have portrayed in this long review, which is essentially a recapitulation of Chapter 7, “The Problems of Pluralism.” I have done this because Netland’s critique of Hick cuts to the heart of problems both with Hick’s model of religious pluralism, and others’. But the entire book is worth reading, and the final chapter sketches the outline of a Christian theology of religions.

Book Reviewed
Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

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